MotoGP: The 300km/h soap opera

Lorenzo won the MotoGP championship, but will he ever win over the fans?

© Alexandre Chailan & David Piolé
© Alexandre Chailan & David Piolé


If you’re a motor racing fan, chances are you watched the 18th and final round of the 2015 MotoGP World Championship on Sunday. Taking place at the fantastic Ricardo Tormo circuit in Valencia over 110,000 spectators saw Danny Kent ride home safely to a 9th place finish to clinch the Moto3 title. It was the first British world championship since Barry Sheene won the 500cc title in 1977, an amazing gap of 38 years!

Oh yeah, and then later on in the day someone else also won a race to clinch some other motorcycle racing world championship.

The setup

Unless you’ve been living in an internet-free underground cave, you’ll know the Valencia race was held against a backdrop of acrimony never before seen in MotoGP. To briefly recap, Valentino Rossi accused Marc Marquez of helping out his main title rival Jorge Lorenzo in Australia during the pre-race press conference in Malaysia, Marquez took issue against the accusations, they raced each other hard for a few laps, Rossi then appeared to have punted Marquez off on his way to finishing third after he was frustrated by the young world champion’s robust riding.

© Copyright Milagro
A moment that will live in infamy: Rossi tangles with Marquez at Sepang © Copyright Milagro

Queue pandemonium. Lots of meetings with the race stewards, appeals and counter appeals were filed, everybody posted their opinion on social media, the Spanish and Italian media were whipped into a frenzy and even the Prime Ministers of each country became involved.

Then the announcements were made. Marquez escaped sanction free. Rossi was given three penalty points of his license and would have to start the next race from the back of the grid. His title hopes were scuppered before the race even started.

As the Valencia weekend loomed, Rossi had one final chance by appealing to the CAS (Court of Arbitration for Sport) to have his penalty deferred but on the eve of the race, his appeal was denied so he went into the final race protecting a seven-point championship lead, but with a huge handicap too.

© Alexandre Chailan & David Piolé
Good luck my friend: Valentino Rossi gets a hug from best friend Alessio Salucci © Alexandre Chailan & David Piolé
A champion’s ride

Though there was much at stake, the Valencia MotoGP race unfolded as expected. The record books will show that Jorge Lorenzo blitzed the field in practice and qualifying then led the race from the first corner till the chequered flag to win the race and his third MotoGP world championship. Marc Marquez and fellow Repsol Honda rider Dani Pedrosa joined Lorenzo on the podium, after shadowing their countryman all race but were not able to make a definitive pass for the lead. Valentino Rossi rode through the field to finish fourth albeit 20-seconds down on the leading trio.

That’s what happened, officially. Social media, fans and conspiracy theorists though say something else occurred.

First, let’s assess Valentino’s performance. Even the most loyal Rossi fan will have to admit in Valencia, there was no way their hero would have been able to beat Jorge Lorenzo in a head-to-head duel. The Spaniard has been the faster rider ever since the summer break and unless the racing gods intervened, a 10th overall championship for ‘The Doctor’ looked a near impossibility. He tried everything and his ride from the back of the grid to 4th overall will add to the Rossi legend but on that day and for most of 2015, the fastest rider on a Movistar Yamaha carried the number 99 and not 46.

© Alexandre Chailan & David Piolé
© Alexandre Chailan & David Piolé

Jorge Lorenzo also did everything he was supposed to do. His focus has been laser sharp this year and if it wasn’t for some equipment issues and some curious lack of form in the early races, he would have been crowned champion before the Valencia race. He didn’t put a foot wrong all weekend and is a thoroughly deserving world champion.

I don’t think anybody can argue those facts but questions come up when assessing the performance of the Repsol Honda riders, or at least one of them.

Dani Pedrosa road a clean race. He was overtaken by Marquez early on and seemed to be dropping back into a comfortable third place finish but over the last few laps he mounted a charge as he had more tyre grip than both riders ahead of him. He even took second on the penultimate lap but ran wide after doing so, which allowed Marquez to charge back ahead and follow Lorenzo home in second.

© Alexandre Chailan & David Piolé
Pedrosa mounted a late challenge for second, but Marquez wouldn’t have any of it © Alexandre Chailan & David Piolé

The main point of contention lies with Marc Marquez. Though he has repeatedly said he tried to beat Lorenzo, the out going world champion never attempted to overtake the Yamaha even once. He never drew alongside, never showed him a front wheel under braking and never used the slipstream and the power of his Honda RC213-V to rocket past on the long start and finish straight.

Some credit has to be given to Lorenzo for pumping in fast laps consistently, which may have been enough to allow him to pull clear, but Marc Marquez is by far the most aggressive rider in the MotoGP class with many riders tasting the asphalt or gravel run-off after tangling with him. The fact he didn’t even attempt a single pass on Lorenzo looks suspicious when you consider he easily retook second place when Dani Pedrosa passed him near the end of the race.

Even the new champion said he was surprised there was no attack by the two Honda riders during the race though he also said his fellow Spaniards knew what was on the line for him, so perhaps accusations of collusion aren’t so far fetched? Only Marc Marquez knows what happened and unfortunately for him, its come to the point where he will be judged as guilty even if he’s telling the truth.

© Alexandre Chailan & David Piolé
Chaser or Wingman: This was where Marquez spent the entire race in Valencia © Alexandre Chailan & David Piolé
The simplest explanation is often correct

So, after everything that happened in Valencia, let’s set emotion aside and do a logical review of events.

Firstly, DORNA, the Spanish promoters of the MotoGP world championship and WSBK did not participate in a ‘Spanish stitch-up’ to ensure Lorenzo would win the crown. Yes, Spain’s recent domination of motorcycle racing was usurped in 2015 but these things come and go. Besides, the biggest name in the sport is Valentino Rossi because he puts lots of bums in grandstands and even more on couches in front of the telly and that’s before counting merchandise sales. A Rossi championship would have been more lucrative because of the story behind it and would guarantee heightened interest in MotoGP as he approaches retirement.

© Alexandre Chailan & David Piolé
© Alexandre Chailan & David Piolé

Jorge Lorenzo is a deserving champion despite everything the haters say. He’s been the faster rider and though Rossi kept things interesting with his incredible consistency, outright wins will always beat a steady string of podiums. Over the last five races, Lorenzo finished 1-3-2-2-1 for a score of 106 points out of a possible 125. Rossi managed a 3-2-4-3-4 sequence for only 78 points and that’s all the explanation you need about why Lorenzo is champion.

But, and you always knew there was one coming, Lorenzo will never win the same acceptance and adulation Rossi has from fans around the world.

Lorenzo gets on his bike, sets a time, wins a race, sprays champagne and goes home.

© Alexandre Chailan & David Piolé
© Alexandre Chailan & David Piolé

Rossi talks to his bike, has VLF (Viva La Figa or Long Live Pussy) stamped on the front of his leathers, stands up and adjusts his crotch on the way out of the pits, talks to his bike again on the grid, has an all-action riding style that looks like he could crash at any corner, wins the race, engages the crowd on his slowing down lap with elaborate celebrations and then genuinely looks like the happiest guy on the podium.

Fans will also remember how Lorenzo behaved over the past two weeks. Firstly, he walked off the podium at Sepang and didn’t celebrate his second place finish. Then he went to meet the race stewards to demand a heavier penalty for Rossi’s incident with Marquez even though he had nothing to do with it and wasn’t even an eye witness. He also made statements claiming Rossi was at fault and only escaped heavier sanctions due to his standing in the sport while also filing an appeal to the CAS to punish his rival further.

Ultimately, none of his actions mattered to the final result but to throw your teammate under the bus by actively campaigning for his punishment is not sporting conduct befitting a world champion. Yes, Lorenzo is a deserving winner but the fans at Valencia booed and jeered him as he accepted his trophies. It wasn’t unanimous, but having a Spanish crowd boo a new Spanish world champion is unheard of.

© Alexandre Chailan & David Piolé
All Spanish podium as Lorenzo celebrates his fifth title © Alexandre Chailan & David Piolé

For his part, Valentino Rossi only has himself to blame for being penalised before Valencia. His statement about Marquez and Lorenzo working together caught everyone by surprise and could never be backed up by facts. Perhaps his actions were all part of the psychological warfare he is famous for (look what he did to Sete Gibernau and Max Biaggi) but intimidation only works when you’re the best rider on the best bike. After that, Marquez acting out in Sepang was always a certainty and though the Spaniard probably deserved some kind of penalty for his riding, the fact remains that Rossi let his emotions get the better of him.

It didn’t have to end this way.

As a 36-year old, nobody would have bet on Rossi winning an 8th MotoGP title against Marquez (still only 22) and Lorenzo (28). He is at the tail end of his career and though he finished second in the 2014 season, it was due to the inconsistency of his rivals rather than outright speed.

2015 was different as four wins, two seconds and six thirds in the first 12 races meant that Rossi had a real chance to be champion. It even seemed to be written in the stars as the weather gods at Silverstone granted him a win while Marquez crashed and Lorenzo struggled with visor issues. Ultimately, he came up just short but it would have been better if he didn’t resort to ranting about others.

As things stand, Rossi still believes Marquez helped Lorenzo and has even resorted to calling the Valencia race a farce. But Valentino would do well to review the race and see how Italian riders Danilo Petrucci and Andrea Dovizioso on Italian Ducati bikes didn’t make it too hard for him to pass them during the race. After questioning his integrity, how could Rossi have the temerity to expect Marquez to beat Lorenzo to help him win the championship? As the saying goes ‘You can’t have your own cake and eat it too’.

Still the centre of attention: Rossi talks to the media after the race at Valencia ©

Still, despite his behaviour, the world still loves Rossi. As he rode back to the pits, there was a huge crowd of fans, media, race officials, team members and riders lining up the pit lane to applaud his ride at Valencia and to offer commiserations. There were more people wanting to see the fourth place finisher rather than the new world champion and that really says it all about his status in the sport.

As for Marc Marquez, the future is there for the taking. He’s already a double MotoGP world champion and the undoubted heir to Rossi’s throne as the best in the business. He’s only 22 so the prospect of him overtaking his former idol’s haul of titles and race wins is a very real possibility. In time, the fans will eventually forgive his behaviour over the last two races because he will wow them with his personality and on-track performances.

Just like Rossi though, it should never have come to this.

Marquez didn’t need to engage Rossi in such a manner in Malaysia. He should have just ridden away and allowed the two Yamaha’s to sort themselves out. He should also have at least attacked Lorenzo a few times in Valencia to shut the doubters up, but I guess that’s what emotional immaturity does to you. Pity.

© Alexandre Chailan & David Piolé
© Alexandre Chailan & David Piolé
Watch out for 2016

So 2015 is done and dusted but the riders will be back at testing this week before the winter break kicks in. Next season should be even more interesting as big changes are set to occur.

The first one is the use of a standard electronics package for all MotoGP bikes regardless of brand. That cuts out the advantage a team of computer geeks could deliver to any team and should in theory mean everybody will have the same set of electronic controls.

The other big change is the switch from Bridgestone to Michelin tyres. New tyre construction patterns and compounds will force everybody to get on a steep learning curve so again, the playing field should be level for a while.

It’s difficult to see Rossi still being in the running for a championship in what could be his final season (his contract with Yamaha only runs till next year) but the changes could work in his favour. Don’t forget, Rossi is the only rider to have any experience of riding the monstrous 500cc machines and though his level of control isn’t noticeably better than any other top rider, he could be faster than the rest with less electronics to play with.

© Alexandre Chailan & David Piolé
Champions of 2015: Danny Kent (Moto3), Jorge Lorenzo and Johann Zarco (Moto2), bring on 2016! © Alexandre Chailan & David Piolé

Lorenzo should prove to be a real threat from the beginning and if he rides as well as he did this year, then he could be in for a fourth MotoGP crown. Of course he’ll have to beat Marc Marquez to do it and judging by his speed in the second half of 2015, Marc could be back to his dominant best next year.

Finally, spare a thought for Dani Pedrosa. He won two of the final four races of 2015 and if it wasn’t for his teammate suddenly waking up, he could very well have won in Valencia too. So he enters 2016 with a lot of momentum and assuming he can get up to speed quickly, he’s a dark horse for the title.

Whatever happens in the next few months, when the riders line up on the grid in Qatar on 20th March 2016 the process to find a new champion starts again. Let’s just hope the action remains on the track and the soap operas of 2015 are left in the past.